One of the central themes that have been dominating the media lately regarding the Syrian crisis has been the participation of (Islamist) extremist elements in both of the camps of the civil war. What is the situation now in Syria, and what might the current developments hold for its future?
It is by now well known that the ethno-religious synthesis of Syria is making the conflict even more complicated than the external interests involved already make it. In light of this, the recent reports on the exploitation of the struggle from Islamist groups and the regional and global responses to the crisis point to a serious escalation of the conflict.
After the important move from the part of the Arab League to politically legitimize the Syrian opposition (Syrian National Coalition) by offering it Assad’s seat at the latest summit in Qatar, things have taken a turn for the worse. This might not be directly – or at least, obviously – related to other events but it shows how political and military developments go hand in hand as the crisis escalates. Of course, there were reports on Islamist groups operating in Syria before that, such as the jihadist Salafists from Gaza. According to Asmaa al-Ghoul, the Gaza Salafists see Syria as a good opportunity for conducting jihad, unlike Gaza where “the door…is closed”. The leader of the group, which joined the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nursa, also remarked that their ideology is the same with that of al-Qaeda.
Less than a month later, it was reported that the Iraqi al-Qaeda as well as Egyptian jihadists had joined the Syrian struggle as well. Just like Gaza’s Salafists, the Iraqi al-Qaeda united with al-Nursa. Importantly enough, al-Noursa is said to be the leading militant group against the Assad regime while its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, “replaced the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) with ‘the brigades and militant groups’”. Al-Noursa is a primarily Islamist organization which was formed in Syria in 2011 and has been designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. As the war in Syria progresses, al-Nursa and the Islamist factions that comprise it seem to be acquiring an even more prominent role thus marginalizing the FSA. Its affiliations with al-Qaeda and its extremist Sunni Islamist ideology place it both against the current Syrian regime and the West policies and plans in the country.
But there is another aspect in this. The rebels are not the only ones with affiliations to Islamist groups. After all the close relationship of Assad’s regime with Hamas and Hezbollah has long been a pain for the United States and Israel – among others. Yet, Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni Islamist organization with the militant wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, parted ways with Assad in 2011 and moved its headquarters away from Damascus; today it is said to be fighting against Assad. On the other hand, fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has close relations with the also Shiite Iran, reportedly keep flowing into Syria to fight by the side of Assad’s army. This has to a great extent turned the civil war into an intra-religious sectarian conflict between the al-Nursa fighters and Hezbollah as a Syrian and Iranian proxy – led alone the role of the Kurds and other groups. For his part Assad has said that the West is supporting al-Qaeda, while the Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood, a supposedly moderate political Islamic group, denied the influence of Islamist extremist groups in Syria and stated that “It is not true that extremists are in charge of liberated lands.”
This domestic and sectarian escalation is not unrelated to the regional geopolitics and international responses. As already known Syria has very strong ties to Iran. The latter is the last country that would like to see Syria fall, another one would be Russia. In terms of Islamist extremism Russia is very worried about the possibility of Assad’s overthrow as that would result in great instability thus opening the Islamist Pandora’s box with many dangers for Russia’s own problem with Islamic terrorism in Chechnya and beyond. Iran knows very well that after Syria falls it will be next in line as well as that without Syria its regional power would be significantly severed. After all it has been argued a while back that Syria might well be the means to an end (i.e. Iran) for the West. Turkey and Israel have their own plans and concerns about Syria, although Turkey has alleviated much of its insecurity with the recent ceasefire of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Between the fears about Islamist extremists taking over post-Assad Syria and claims that the Syrian regime has been using chemical weapons, international actors seem to want to take more decisive steps. Among others the United Kingdom expressed its concerns and the need for the perpetrators to be held to account. The Israel Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was blunter stating that “if terrorists seized anti-aircraft and chemical weapons they could be ‘game changers’ in the region.” Provided that Israel seems more anxious than the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program, one could argue that it is also eager for a regime change in Syria. Further, one of the most important recent steps was taken by the US: two hundred American troops were dispatched to Jordan “to help contain the violence in Syria,” according to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Defense Secretary seemed extra cautious in its remarks about a possible intervention, notably by saying “You better be damn sure, as sure as you can be, before you get into something.”
As complicated as the conflict might be domestically and externally, what does the future hold for Syria? An intervention may indeed not be imminent. The establishment of a no-fly zone might still be the one decision with the lowest risk. Yet, in order for any decision to be made and any operation to be undertaken there has to be a pretext that would legitimize regional or international mobilization as well as avoid an open confrontation – at least – with Russia. According to the emphasis given on Syria’s chemical weapons by the media and world leaders, as well as the fact that Assad has not yet allowed the United Nations to conduct an investigation about them, this might turn out to be the necessary pretext for the West to take action. Even if the decision for an intervention is made either within NATO or from a coalition of countries, the US will not take the lead, just like in the case of Libya. Regional states such as Turkey, Israel and Qatar will be at the forefront as well as European states such as France and even Germany. Whatever fight will be neither easy nor short and it will bear the risk of igniting a regional conflict. If and when Assad falls the country will still be ridden from ethno-religious violence and regional proxy power struggles, making the task of post-conflict reconstruction almost impossible. The federalization of Syria will be inevitable and will be consisted of two or more federal states based on its ethnic and religious synthesis. The country’s power will most probably be assumed by moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, like in Egypt and Tunisia. Israel will not be happy with such an arrangement but it might be the only one given Turkey’s involvement and the role of moderate political Islam in the recent US foreign policy.
 For a great account of the role of political Islam in the Arab Uprisings and American foreign policy see, among others, Kleanthis Kyriakidis, Political Islam and the Arab Spring [In Greek] in Kouskouvelis E. The Arab Spring [In Greek], Macedonia University Press, Thessalonica, 2012, pp.45-69.
Published on Strategy International, 18/04/2013